Near Scauri, in the countryside, in the middle of the olive groves, is a small and not very industrialized oil mill. It has been doing its labors for 50 years now. Although there is no blindfolded donkey turning the millstones anymore, the process has remained pretty straightforward. During the harvesting season (late Oct, all of Nov, and early Dec), this mill operates 24 hours a day to insure the freshness of the product. Unlike wine, olive oil is ready to be used immediately after its production.
Driving up to the mill on a tiny country road, scents in the air of all kinds of grasses and the typical farm smells of hay bales and animals, feed corn and manure were quite present. However, once inside the oil mill (which is open like a double car garage with the doors up and about that size) all those smells are left outside. The perfume of the crushed olives is almost a heady smell. It is magical and delicious. It is an intense bouquet of the whole plant — flower, fruit and leaves — all its stages come to fruition.
It is a colorful scene to the eye: crates and crates of olives stacked on top of each other on one end of the space near the millstones, three of them rotating constantly in a large tub. Each batch takes 30-40 minutes to make the olive paste that will be spread on jute mats or disks. These are hung high up in the barn outside in rows to await use and have the look of freshly minted coins of pale gold.
In the central area where the stacks of mats spread with olive paste are moved to the four presses, sawdust is strewn about to prevent slipping on olive residue. The jute mats stack on a stainless steel disk and the top of the stack ends with another one. These can handle the tremendous pressure that the process involves. Water continually drips down on the stack. The stack looks about half the size when it comes out as when it went under the press. (These mats are discarded into the farm dung heap after their original use. However, they are recycled. They still retain so much oil that they can be used for industrial fuel.) The next step is that centrifugal force separates the oil from the water and the oil from each press is brought by pipes to something that looks like a sink with a faucet below; oil can be put into whatever size container you wish. This whole procedure is very well organized. The oil from one press doesn’t mingle with the oil from another. This insures that the farmer gets the oil from his very own olive trees. That’s important for the comparing (and competition) of taste, scent, density, color, and the amount of yield. The farmer’s pride is in his plant.
The richness of the Italian language comes into full play when you catch these men and women of the land talking about this year’s weather and its effect on the fruit. The nuances are charming to listen to and the enthusiasm and passion of the conversation on this one topic: the cycle of the olive plant in 2011, just makes you want to get into this fruitful art yourself. Apparently olive production was down about 20% this year because of an untimely humidity which caused the tiny white blossoms to fall from the trees.
The olive mill does sell its own oil from this cold press process. It is superior oil. The color is a delight — it looks like a cloudy and fluid form of the gemstone peridot, a form of the mineral olivine or chrysolite. So, I brought home my jewel, my lovely prize from the press. Wish I could offer you some.
Ciao, Sally Fougerousse